The many faces of Nepal
01.07.2013 - 15.07.2013 30 °C
What to say about Nepal: it surprised me, as it was different from what I expected. Somehow I always associated Nepal to the Himalaya, so I though of Kathmandu as a city built up a hill with a style reminding me of the Swiss chalets back home. Let's be honest - that was very naive. The Nepal I discovered had many more sides, and the one related to the Himalaya might not be the most characteristic, even though is what drives the tourism economy down here.In my opinion, the country shows itself in different ways, so let me tell you about these "faces of Nepal":
Face nr. 1 - The cities: Kathmandu & its Valley
The Kathmandu Valley is an amazing place, one of the few places worldwide that can count 7 world heritage sites all together, both of Hindu and Buddhist origin. Kathmandu itself is probably the reason why I said that Nepal was different from what I imagined, but it still managed to fascinate me, as I am a fan of chaotic cities where streets pulse with life, smells and colors overlap each other and traffic threatens to kill you if you start being careless. The ethnic mix is extreme variegated - besides people with strong Chinese and Indian roots, Nepali differ greatly among themselves as well. One thing that seems to be common to them, might be their typical hat, the Dhaka topi. Being ethnicity not enought, the religion mix is also added up to the game: Nepal is the place where Buddhism and Hinduism meet and, as far as I know, peacefully coexist (Buddha is an important figure in Hinduism as well). Scattered among the city are many temples to be found, some Buddhist, some Hindu, and some that are a combination of the two faiths. Some of the more typical structures of Kathmandu are either the heritage of Buddhism and of the Tibetan community (that widely spread in Nepal after China came down on them in the 50s and and saw themselves forced to flee), or of the Hindu religion. My favourite is probably the site of Bodhnath, the largest stupa in Asia, around which people walk (clockwise) in the late afternoon making the prayer wheels spin, under the everywhere-looking eyes of the Buddha.
The center of the city is however Durbar Square, definitely more related to the Hindu religion, which shows different architectural forms and less Buddhist prayer flags (obviously), but that still manages to attract a large community of pigeons with which kids play around the whole time, making historical and cultural centers come alive. The Durbar Square of Kathmandu was however not my favorite one (also because the so-called local guides kept on bothering me all the time, partly ruining the atmosphere). More intimate and proportioned is the Durbar Square of Bhaktapur, that consist in several smaller temples, gates and historical buildings:
Face nr. 2 - The Himalaya: Annapurna
The Himalaya is one if not the reason why the majority of people come to Nepal. A place where you can easily trek for days amidst soaring peaks covered in never-melting snow, and gaze to some of the tallest mountains in the world. Close to the laid back city of Pokhara, is the Annapurna region, where I decided to do a short trek. Due to limited time, I chose to get to the Annapurna Basecamp (4130m) and get back in around 6 days, even though people usually take 8-9 days... we managed it in 5 days. I even got my Nepalese guide to be out of breadth, so that was a satisfaction! I guess that walking everyday for a few hours for the last 6 months did keep me in shape! However, the trek was different than what I might have thought before informing myself - only the very last part of the trek was amidst the soaring peaks, with low vegetation and wildflowers; most of it was walking in a green valley, below tall trees typical of a rain forest, and fresh waterfalls. The fact that this was in full monsoon season added more green to the valley, more vegetation around us and definitely, definitely more water - from the waterfalls, from the sky and from the wet mud below our feet. "Monsoon season" carries a very much hated 3-letters word with it: "fog". The first day me and my guide arrived in the so-called Annapurna Sanctuary (as you are surrounded by peaks like in an arena) I saw... a beautiful grey wall of fog. Huge disappointed, bu I knew it would be part of the game. The strategy of waking up at dawn the day after did not deliver better results. However, when you less expect it, BAM! The fog cleared up for 20 mins and there it was, The Himalaya, the mountains we all walked for 3 days to see:
We were excited as kids, because we knew that many people had come up the basecamp in the last days and saw nothing, so... I really felt luck was on our side. Coming in the regular season (Oct-Nov) is of course better - no fog. But you get 200 people instead of 7 like we were, completely ruining the atmosphere, creating queues on the trails, and making you wait for your Dal Baht (rice+soup+vegetables = the power for 24 hours!) for two hours. So, what is better? I was happy to be there now: a few people to share an exciting moment.
Face nr. 3 - The rural life
I don't know what the reason might be, but whenever I get in contact with the rural life I feel like I am getting one of the the best faces of a country. Maybe it is because that is a world only slightly influenced by the tourism industry, maybe because it is a glimpse in the past of what developed countries used to be, or maybe it is because I am fascinated by a lifestyle that still considers nature and the environment as a partner, instead of a slave. Whatever the reason, Nepal is a great place to have contacts with it, as the majority of the population still lives by working rice fields and keeping a flock of goats or buffalo. It does differ from region to region of course, and the two extremes are the rural life in the mountains on one side, in which everything needs to be carried up on your back (or that of a donkey sometimes) by taking countless steps on never-ending stairways:
and on the other is the plain countryside rural life, where endless rice fields need to be attended to. Now it was right the moment of the year when the rice is planted in the water (more like mud though). By travelling from one city to another I was fascinated by the contrast of this green fields and the colorful clothes of the people (mainly women) working in the fields, shielding from the sun with umbrellas and spending day after day planting rice plant after rice plant, by hand:
Face nr. 4 - The wild Nepal
This was quite unexpected. Never I would have thought of going to Nepal to see single-horned rhinos and mount elephants. But it happened in the Chitwan National Park, in the south, and it was a great time! Two things I will remember for sure: the first, chasing that rhino. We were wandering with our guide in the forest, when we met some farmers that told us a rhino was nearby after having fought with another, and that they had to jump into the water to protect themselves of being seen and charged. We followed some trails, extremely excited, and there he was, majestic and proud:
We were of course separated by a course of water, but still... we were sweating cold! The second experience was the elephant bathing time, were tourists like me can enjoy a fresh shower of brown water in the face, while mounting a big pachyderm. It was so much fun, and when you least expect it the owner of the elephant gives him a command and splash, the elephant turns on the side and let himself fall into the water, with you on him. Good times!
Face nr. 5 - The mystery of Buddhism
Buddhism has always interested me, even though was for a long time a mystery. Everything revolves around the figure of this Buddha... but who was he? Was he a god? Was he human? And in what do Buddhist really believe? I took this chance to get a deeper understanding of these questions, and having found some partial answers, I can definitely says that Buddhism is not for me. The concept of rebirth (samsara) that involves the karmic cycle is of course very interesting, but the idea that to achieve true happiness one has to renounce to most of the things that could cause him pain does not appeal to me. I understand that by giving up material life one can live a better and more serene life far from the slavery that is typical of our business- and technology-driven world, but I cannot accept the fact of giving up ambition, dreams, family and love for the sake of happiness. I am a very emotive person, and whenever I feel strong emotions is when I feel the most alive, be them positive or negative. I still need to work on these thoughts though, they are more complicated than it sounds... it is part of the whole self-discovery that is happening during this round the world trip. Moreover, I am finally reading Siddharta by Herman Hesse, one of my favorite books ever, which partly showed me the difference between me and the Buddhist belief. This doesn't however mean that I am not fascinated by and do not respect this religion, and by the people who practice it. That is why I am reading a book about the life of Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, to learn more about his story, its enlightenment and its reaching of the nirvana. To briefly answer the questions raised before: Siddharta was 100% human, but he was also the final reincarnation of thousands of previous lifes that brought him to be the perfect being (the final "stage" of a process of lifes that lasted for thousands of years), finally ready to detach himself from the cycle of life and hence reach the nirvana, a state of eternal cosmic peace. Siddharta Gautama was the "last" Buddha, the one of our generation (even though he was born in the 6th century BC), and he is the person that taught his followers the way of life the current Buddhists follow.
In Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, I got to visit the world heritage site where a stone is placed where it has been established Siddharta Gautama was born, now an important location of pilgrimage. Besides the interesting (but so exaggerated sometimes) story of his birth, the place is not that special... but the visit to a nearby monastery was, where a new generation of monks is being trained. I spent hours with them, we talked about what are their lectures, why they ended up there, what they think of the monastery life, and I also got invited to share a meal with them - of course, it was Dhal Bhat. Interesting to see how young people might behave in the same way as everywhere, even though they wear a monk robe:
This little guy was the youngest of the crew, and he was simply so cute running around with its robes a bit too large for his size! When I named him "mini-Buddha" I caused a whole bunch of other kids to burst into laughs, that was a good moment =)
Face nr. 6 - Supporting the new generation
Nepal is considered one of the least developed countries worldwide. It is in fact very poor, and was recently slowed down by a civil war, that resulted in the deposition of the King and the communist party to be in power. Those that are now or will soon suffer most for this lack of development are of course the kids. When staying in Pokhara I slept in a guesthouse that devolves part of its earnings to a foundation that builds orphanages and day cares for children in need, and I got to visit one of them. You can imagine how touching and moving was to see all of these kids, but I still had a great time playing with them for a while... once I started lifting one of them in my arms and shake him (sounds weird but was fun!) they ALL wanted to do it, so I had to do the trick for all of the other 30. Later in the afternoon I went back with a huge cake that definitely made their day, but also mine... It was one of those experiences that makes you think. And think again. And they change you. I am glad to read that many organizations are doing their best in Nepal (and worldwide) to support these children and their future, and I hope that their actions will be extremely successful. I hope that my desire of being part of such a project will not be drown by the life that is expecting me back home, but will stay strong in my heart and become concrete! I don't wanna further articulate it because I don't want them to be words thrown out there without any real action following them... that would be too easy. But I wish it for myself, that someday I could be involved in making these kids keep on smiling. Just it.
This was my Nepal. Maybe short, but I had the chance to see all these different "faces" that I just described, and the picture is that of a great country, with great people. This is what makes the difference in the end, the relationships with the people you have when travelling - I got invited for dinner by a family in the countryside when cycling around, I got to speak about Buddhism with a senior monk in a monastery, I got surrounded by laughing kids at the orphanage, I got to try to carry one of those heavy basket of leafs with my head with the owner laughing at me, I got blessed by a tiny woman that sits the whole day outside of the Bodhnath stupa (see below). And so I also bless you, and wish that everything back at (your) home is fine and you are having great times! I'll fly shortly to India, where the next journey start... more about it in the next post!
Cheers from Kathmandu,